Friday, March 05, 2010

Another Haggadah?

It’s that time of year again. Pesach is beginning to be on everyone’s mind. I will kick things off here with a review of a new Haggadah.

Aside from the Siddur and the Chumash if there is one Sefer that has been published more than any other it is the Haggadah Shel Pesach. No other Sefer comes close to it. There are so many versions and interpretations of the Haggadah it would take a lifetime to go through all of them. So the last thing we need is yet another one.

That’s what I thought until I received for review a copy of ‘The Royal Table’ by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm - written in English and published by the OU Press.

The Haggadah is one of the most fascinating pieces of Jewish literature ever written. Rich with meaning and ritual it is our formal guide for Sipur Yitzias Mitzraim – the Mitzvah requirement to tell over the Exodus story on the night of Pesach.

Working with Rabbi Lamm - Dr. Joel B. Wolowelsky has compiled and edited his writings on the Haggadah into a cohesive commentary that is both inspiring and contemporary. This Haggadah should be a welcome addition to anyone’s Seder and library.

The format is similar to that of many other Haggados that have English translations and commentary. On the top right is the classic Hebrew text and the top left - its translation. On the bottom left and right are Rabbi Lamm’s insights.

Rabbi Lamm’s knowledge of Chazal, Rishonim, and Achroinim, combined with his intellectualism and sense of ethics is always evident as it is woven together into the fabric of this work. And yet it is as easy to understand by the layman is it is to appreciated by the Talmid Chacham or scholar. His novel insights are unique as he demonstrates the relevance of the Haggadah to our own day.

Rabbi Lamm has entitled the work, “The Royal Table”. He explains in the introduction that the table is prominently mentioned in the Gemarah as that upon which ‘the Seder narrative is played out’. It is royal because the participants sitting at it conduct themselves as ‘victors in ancient battle not only with Egyptians but with others over the generations who enslaved us’.

An example of his commentary is the section that deals with the four sons. He compares the Chacham – the wise son to the Tam – the simple son.

The Chacham asks ‘What are the testimonies, statutes, and laws that God commanded us?” The Haggadah instructs us to answer him by teaching the laws of Pesach from the beginning of Tractate Pesachim until the very last Mishnah dealing with the Afikoman.

The simple son asks a more general question, “What’s this all about?” The Haggadah answers with a correspondingly simple, “With a mighty hand did God take us out of Egypt”.

Rabbi Lamm points out that while most sources give these answers, the Talmud Yerushalmi reverses them. The Chacham is told, “With a mighty hand did God take us out of Egypt” and the simple son is told to learn the Halachos of Pesach.

Rabbi Lamm suggests a possible reason for this ‘switch’. The Yerushalmi was probably thinking of a surrealistic time when true Chachamim will be considered a Tam or a simpleton while the Tam will receive the popular acclaim due to a Chacham. In other words says Rabbi Lamm - the Yerushalmi is referring to our own time. We live in age where countries dominated by small fanatic militaristic clique promenade as ‘peace loving democracies’ while the only enlightened country in the Middle East which needs peace for its very survival is condemned as an aggressor and ‘bastion of imperialism’.

And who is lauded in our time as a Chacham and dismissed as a Tam? Is the learned author regarded as a Chacham and the ignorant Jewish entertainer the Tam? Or is it the reverse? Who is regarded as the wiser man, the devoted scholar who can barely make a living? Or is it the shrewd operator who can make a successful ‘killing’? Who is ridiculed as a Tam the monogamous and moral or the one who follows the fashion of our sexually liberated society?

How right were the sages of the Yerushalmi! With what insight they depicted our own day! The Tam has been crowned as the Chacham. To this kind of ‘Chacham’ one cannot give the answer of Halacha. To him one must speak of the mighty hand of God.

In truth this abbreviated paraphrase of his commentary does not do it full justice. There is much more elaboration by Rabbi Lamm. He brings to bear his vast breath of knowledge of classic sources to round out his point and drive home his message. But I hope it at least demonstrates the depth of thought that went into this commentary. This Haggadah is filled with many such insights and I recommend it. It is available through (see left margin).